Monday, September 13, 2010

New accessories to my new camera

I've got two new accessories for my Panasonic Lumix DMC-FH20 camera. The first I already used on my backpacking trip to the Wind River Range in Wyoming doing the Lizard Head Loop. The second I just got today. I plan on taking both on my second trip in 2010.

Camera accessory one is the StickPic found at thestickpic.com for 11.99 plus shipping. It's a bright idea from a couple of guys out of California that uses your hiking or trekking pole as a third person to take portrait photos or videos. I took it in August to take pics of myself and of myself with Boomer in the shot.
Camera, StickPic and trek pole tip

It's very simple to use. I had only two issues with the StickPic. One, is that I couldn't screw the camera down fully to the StickPic and have the camera line up properly. See, the logo on the fat white plastic piece needs to face back up the trekking pole. I had to twist the black jam nut back clockwise which left a small gap between it and the white plastic piece. However, the camera did stay in the correct position on my trekking pole despite that gap.

The second issue probably has to do with practice. I kept only 14 photos due to my inability to get the framing right. I either had to much sky or head room in the shot. Or a lot of the times the camera angle was just off by being either too downward or upward looking based on how I held the pole. (See sample photos below Grade)

Now you shouldn't leave the stickpic on the trekking pole tip. But the device sure holds well to the trekking pole tip without turning over the camera so it ends up hanging down. Still it's easy to pull off your trekking pole and slide it back on. I left the StickPic on my camera the whole trip and it didn't get in the way of handling the camera or storing in my hipbelt pocket.



Black washer underneath jam nut
After I got home, I found a split washer in my hardware box that fit nicely between the jam nut and the white plastic piece. Now the StickPic is fully locked down onto my Panasonic Lumix DMC-FH20 digital camera. I think the guys from The StickPic might consider tossing in a washer or two if others can't fully thread the StickPic into the mounting hole in the bottom of their camera like me.



Grading the StickPic
A-
It will get an A+ if I can improve my angle with my trekking pole. I would like to be able to take self portrait shots that have a nice straight on angle that looks like a third person at the same level took the photo.
Too much sky
Too much headroom
Better headroom, more direct angle
Angle too low
Not bad considering the position
A better photo if looking at camera
Off center but good angle
Not bad with hammock in the shot



























Now with the second camera accessory, I bought a Tamrac ZipShot Tripod from B & H Photo. Again I main got this for self portrait photos because I didn't like the mini tripod out there like the Gorillapod. I could never find a tree limb to get a good shot. And such tripods being so short, placing them on the ground to shoot a pic only got you an very upward angled shot.

I'm excited about taking the ZipShot on my next trip because it was reasonable light. I measured it 11.30oz; Tamrac claims 11oz even. Though the legs bow in a tad bit it held my camera solid enough. Though playing around with it at home, it's best if you set the camera in position and place it on a timer instead of keeping you hands on the camera during the shot. It's very easy to jerk the camera's position with you hands on it because the ball head does not locked down motionlessly tight. The camera tends to "settle" when you lock it down though the camera doesn't rock at all once you take your hands off it.

Further, I might look into trying to a bubble level that could serve also as a handle to the ball head of the tripod or the camera itself for moving shots and general leveling.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

New Camera Shoots Awesome Trip Pics

Finally I got my hands on an affordable point and shoot digital camera that can take great backpacking trip photos. In the last year, I've gone through 2 cameras, a Canon 1100is and a Kodak M340, in which I was never completely satisfied with. The Canon was excellent if the outdoor light was just perfect and the contrast wasn't "too narrow". The Kodak took decent photos in not so ideal conditions. But when conditions were ideal the photos were just so-so; no better than when the conditions were so-so. So this year, before my first backpacking trip in August, I sold each on eBay and decided to really test any camera purchase outdoors before making in a commitment.

Further criticism was that neither camera was good on action shots. Even Boomer slowly sauntering up the trail produced photos out of focus most of the time. However the Canon was pretty good with the video/audio quality of its movie capture mode.

Sample of Old Cameras' Trip Pics
1) Kodak M340 - Dog looks good but Snowmass Lake is not so blue, the grass not so green and the little field flowers lack punch like it was in person. The lighting was perfect as we descended the pass but the camera never captured the vibrant colors in the shot.
Sample 1 - Kodak M340
2) Canon 1100is - Lighting was perfect and the contrast was nice & wide with grays, browns, blues and greens all in the shot. Even the snow pack skimming the descending peaks looks sharp.
Sample 2 - Canon 1100is
3) Canon 1100is - But here the light wasn't so great and there's a lot of green. Consequently the photo was flat and never capture a more vibrant scene as it was in person.
Sample 3 - Canon 1100is
On that note, I even tried Kodak's Zi8 Video Camera in the Spring of 2010. That's because I had the "bright idea" of just take moving pictures instead of stills and just capture any photos I liked from the movies. Not a good idea. The video quality at the HD 1080p end was great but still capture was mobile phone quality. And the bonus mode of 5MP photo taking was about as weak; further lens was fixed..

So I sold that thing too even before I had a replacement. But like I said above, I promised I wouldn't hold on to a camera more than a month before I decided whether I would ship it back or not. I really lost money on that video camera and those other two cameras selling them on eBay. Also I was done with looking at Kodak or Canon cameras.

Going through various backpacking forums, a lot of folks had Panasonic Lumix cameras. Though I never could narrow down what model was favored. Just got the general sense that any of the Lumix models people were very happy with. So I continued my research on Panasonic cameras with Amazon.com's customer reviews. The customer reviews were really helpful looking at the various Lumix models, even comparison between each model.

Unfortunately after my research, I really wanted the DMC-ZS7. But that was $300.00 on sale. I needed something under $200.00 with a wide angel lens and 5X optical lens. There was just two Panasonic models under that price point. One was under $100 on sale, the DMC-FH2. I didn't want to go super cheap so I focused my attention on the next model up, the DMC-FH20, which was around $160.00 on sale at BeachCamera.com.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FH20 with StickPic
But that model didn't have the high-end HD video mode a lot of cameras have now. More importantly it didn't have the German-made Leica lens like the ZS7. Boy, I really wanted to spend the extra $100 plus but just couldn't right now. The FH20 had just a stock lens, nothing noteworthy. And further not noteworthy, the FH20 just had a stock digital camera processor. All the ZS7 literature and Amazon reviews seem to indicated that it had a higher end or even a larger chip. So I wasn't sure I was going to be pleased any more with this Panasonic camera than with a Kodak or Canon of the same class.

But it was now July and my first backpacking trip of 2010 was coming up in mid-August and I still couldn't pulled the trigger on a camera from a maker I had no experience with. But I still had several weeks to test the camera at home and ship back if need be. But it was the first of August before I purchased the Lumix FH20A camera ("A" for blue) with an extra battery. I crossed my figures hoping that I would have a camera for my trip.

I immediately took some photos outdoors at the neighborhood mountain bike park. I was ready to return it asap to BeachCamera.com if the photos came out as disappointing as the last two cameras. I had to remind myself several times that I wasn't going to take this camera on a trip, return with lackluster photos and then six months later decide I have to sell the camera.

Well at home I was mostly happy with my test photos - good quality, better than the other two cameras I thought. Though it was hard to tell how much better. In Oklahoma City we were going through a heat wave, everything was dead and the daylight always looked "hot". Therefore in general and the park in particular I couldn't expect much photo quality-wise in the dead of Summer. But like I said, the Panasonic seemed to take better photos than what I recalled from the previous cameras in such conditions.

I think I convinced myself that it was worth bringing the camera on the trip when I took some action shots of Boomer rolling on his back in the grass. The focus was sharp enough with the action around his face that wasn't moving as much. And the blurriness was acceptable like with the tail because it at least showed motion. But the contrast and the color, who knew. I really couldn't forecast what I might expect on the trip to the Wind River Range in Wyoming.
So what's the verdict on the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FH20?

Well, I especially loved the color; very vibrant just as good as it was in person. Also I had very few photos to delete that weren't in focus. The focusing was good either by half press of the capture button or with the autofocus when quickly taking a shot. Contrast handling was much better than my last two cameras. And overall operation was above par: quick shutter, quick off/on, hand feel, menu options, etc.
And I was really pleased when I got home and saw that the photos on my computer screen looked just like the playback display on the 2.7 LCD. Something like that really helps on the trip when you are deciding on whether you got the shot on site. Previous cameras LCD displays were never that clear or honest about the actual photo taken when going through playback.
Boomer's nose browses the flowers
The only complaint I have with the FH20 is the auto white balance on some of my trip shots. Most notably on shots with the sky. If the sky is cloudless or mostly cloudless, the auto WB can sometimes shoot the sky "hot". But I think I can remedy that by going to manual WB when I have a "hot sky". You see how the sky in the shot below went all pastel and washed-out. That happened 50% of the time when I had no clouds in shots with lots of sky and high contrast between it and other objects in the scene.
Not so good, sky too "hot", everything else a bit flat
Much better on the sky and the rest together
Now I didn't shot any video on this first trip. But recently at home I did shoot some of my apartment as part of a documentation of my possessions for insurance purposes. And the video quality looks above average for YouTube. But in the near future I'm planning on posting some videos of gear reviews, backpacking tips and even trip footage. Hopefully this Panasonic Lumix DMC-FH20 will be my all-purpose camera for a couple of years.

Grading the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FH20
Overall > A- compared to my two previous cameras which get a C+ (Kodak M340 and Canon 1100is)
Specifics:
  • Contrast handling > A- vs the others B-
  • Color "Punch" > A vs the others C+
  • Focusing > A vs the others C- (includes auto mode on action shots and AI on what is important in the frame of the shot)
  • Operations/Handling > A vs the others B-
However, I think this new camera gets a B- from what you might expect from a moderately priced, average P&S digital camera. I think if I could had afforded the DMC-ZS7 with a better lens and a better/larger processor chip, this model from Panasonic might not rate so high. But with that said, I am now a fan of Panasonic digital cameras.


Thursday, August 26, 2010

How long can you travel on a donut?

If you followed my first backpacking trip report in August, you know on day two of driving to the Wind River Range in Wyoming that I had a flat once I pulled into Big Sandy Campground. So instead of waiting 4 days, knowing I wouldn't be in the mode to replace it after the actual backpacking trip, I replaced the flat with the damnable donut spare tire my 2003 Pontiac Sunfire provided.

Typically the distance you should travel on a donut tire is no more than 70 miles. More miles past that and you run the risk of a blow out. But I had 26.2 miles on CR 353 plus 89 miles to Rock Springs on US 191 before I could reach a Walmart Supercenter to fix the original tire. Further nearly half of 26.2 miles was dirt and gravel with numerous washboard bumps.

Well on the morning of August 24th, the road angels were with me and I got to that Walmart in Rock Springs with that donut performing like a champ. In fact when the T&L guys returned the donut to it's well in my trunk, I noticed the tire still looked brand new. I had never used it before this incident.
The back end of my car









My Pontiac Sunfire's spare tire well doesn't provide enough room for a full size tire even though in the pic below it looks like it could. So I can't replace the spare with a "real" tire. Can't believe car makers are so petty with such features. I'm sure a $100 added to the sticker price would be enough to fit in a full spare.
Looks like room for a full tire
but it's not










But like I said, looking at the tire after I got home in Oklahoma City, I was wondering whether I need to replace it because it looks new despite 115.2 miles on the road. I'm sure the smart thing to do is to go to a junk yard and replace the donut before my next road trip. Uggh!?!!!
Even the rubber fringe fingers
are not worn off